Two battles, one destiny: Penn State and Gettysburg during the Civil War

By Matthew Swayne
June 17, 2013

Two battles raged in Pennsylvania in 1863. One would serve as a defining moment in the Civil War, a conflict that ended slavery and changed the identity of the United States. Another battle, not far from the bloody fields and smoke-veiled ridges of Gettysburg, would redefine the identity of a struggling university and reveal the promise of higher education to a new generation of Americans.

In both battles, Penn Staters paid the ultimate price.

Like the rest of the country in the early 1860s, the campus of the recently organized Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, better known as the Farm School, was tense and divided. The students and faculty of the institution that would become The Pennsylvania State University were anything but united in the effort to keep the Union together.

This tension erupted on several occasions.

In 1860, an effigy of President-elect Abraham Lincoln was hung from a window of a partially completed Old Main, the only campus building worthy of a name at the time.

Sometimes tension turned into outright violence, mirroring the dissent spreading across the country.

Tellico Johnson, a Farm School student before enlisting in the Union army, wrote in his memoirs that a group of farmers returning from a war protest in Bellefonte began cheering for Jefferson Davis as they passed the campus. Johnson described how a crowd of students stopped the wagons and fought the farmers, threatening to hang them.

"One of the students had a pistol and it looked very serious for the farmers, but the pleading of their women and children, and the good sense of some of the leading students, prevented the hanging," Johnson wrote.

Robert M. Forster (spelled Foster in some records), who served as the Farm School's first postmaster, actively recruited students to join Lincoln's call for an additional 300,000 soldiers in 1862. Several students left with Forster, joining the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Records suggest that at least two students of the Farm School -- Mordecai Lewis and William McAllister, nephew of Hugh McAllister, a Bellefonte attorney who was one of the school's founding Board of Trustees members and the architect of the original Old Main -- left the school to fight for the Confederacy. Those same records indicate that McAllister and Lewis may have returned to Pennsylvania in 1863, although the reunion with their former classmates would not occur on the pastures of the Farm School, nor would it be peaceful.

In a war where brother fought brother, Hugh McAllister saw the conflict tear apart his own family. Not only did Hugh's nephew align with the South, but his brother Thompson also enlisted in the Confederate army. Hugh's other brother, Robert, was named a brevet major general in the Union army. Thompson and Robert vowed never to speak to one another again.

'The storm of war'

While dozens of Farm School students fought to keep the Union together, the institution's president, Evan Pugh, struggled to hold onto enough students to keep the new institution from fading into oblivion.

The news that reached Pugh's desk in 1861 must have added to the young president's apprehension about this task. The New York Agricultural College announced that it would close, at least temporarily, because the war had drained most of its student body. "We are hard pushed but intend to live through the storm of war," Pugh wrote to his friend Samuel W. Johnson.

Despite the ominous clouds kicked up by the war, Pugh also saw opportunities, ones that matched his own ambition to grow the college beyond its agricultural roots. The Morrill Act, passed in 1862, granted land to universities designated by the individual states to sell to raise funds for endowments.

As Confederate troops began to plot their audacious -- or rash, depending on who is telling the story -- push into Pennsylvania in the late spring of 1863, Pugh was in the thick of a battle to win the sole land-grant designation for Penn State. Whatever time and energy Pugh had left over from the day-to-day running of a college teetering on the thin line between transformation and failure, was spent lobbying legislators. Other colleges and institutions also were lobbying for sole possession or a portion of the land-grant funds. Although claims and counter-claims would roil the Capitol and continue to dog Pugh months later, the state legislature officially designated Penn State the Commonwealth's sole land-grant institution in April 1863.

"Pugh had dual stresses in 1863," University historian Michael Bezilla explained. "On one hand he was trying to position the school to receive the land-grant designation and on the other hand, he was struggling to keep as many students as possible and hold the school together."

The march north

As Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia marched north, war fever and war fears spread throughout Pennsylvania and into the Farm School. Lincoln and Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin called for 50,000 volunteers from the state. Students, often without consent from their parents or from school officials, left to join the hastily formed militias.

Meanwhile, Pugh faced an assault of a different sort. Dozens of worried parents bombarded him with letters, many of them angry that he did not do enough to stop their sons from joining the militia. Despite the loss of students and the increased tension with parents, Pugh vowed to press on.

"We are going on as usual though with very diminished numbers," Pugh wrote to Hugh McAllister. "I feel annoyed that I did not more preemptorily strive to hush up the wild and foolish excitement that took away so many students and yet gave so few efficient soldiers to the army and these without consent of parents."

Meeting at a crossroads town

The battle of Gettysburg had less to do with the Confederate Army's hunt for shoes -- a common explanation of why the two armies decided to fight it out in the southeastern Pennsylvania community -- and more to do with the town's position as a transportation hub in the mid-1800s, according to Carol Reardon, George Winfree Professor of American History at Penn State. The town was at the center of several roads, or pikes, as well as a rail line, that connected to the cities of Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

By late June of 1863, those pikes streamed with men and material from both the Union and Confederate armies. The flashpoint occurred on the morning of July 1, just to the northwest of Gettysburg, when lead elements of the Confederate invasion force clashed with a group of Union infantry and cavalry. After a spirited defense, the Union troops withdrew to the high ground along Cemetery Ridge.

On July 2, 1863, Postmaster Forster, now a captain of the 148th's Company C, and his fellow soldiers, including several former Farm School students, were positioned near the Union's vulnerable left flank in a wheatfield that would be transformed into, as Reardon describes it, "a horrific no-man's land covered thickly with the dead and wounded from both armies."

Somewhere across the fields of the curved fishhook that formed the Union defenses, in all likelihood, Farm School students were fighting for Lee's Army. After leaving the Farm School, William McAllister had enlisted in the 27th Virginia, part of the vaunted Stonewall Brigade. His unit, though, was then transferred into the artillery. According to his records, McAllister may have served with his unit, Carpenter's Battery, during the battle of Gettysburg. The battery trained its guns on Cemetery Hill, a position close to the formidable defenses that the Union had carved into its right flank on Culp's Hill, and Union gunners carefully trained their more plentiful, more accurate cannons on McAllister's unit.

"If McAllister was there, he would have served through a nasty artillery duel on Benner's Hill about 4 p.m. on July 2," Reardon said.

Mordecai Lewis, who quickly rose up the ranks to First Sergeant of Company C in the 2nd Virginia Infantry, one of the regiments that made up of the Stonewall Brigade, was not far from McAllister's battery. His records indicate he was with his unit when it fought in Gettysburg. If so, he would have been part of the repeated Confederate attempts to dislodge Union defenders on Culp's Hill.

According to records, McAllister and Lewis likely made it through the carnage at Gettysburg unscathed, and both survived the war.

Forster was not so lucky. The captain was listed as one of the many casualties during the bloody fighting in the Wheatfield on July 2. While Union commander George Meade oversaw a textbook defense during the three-day battle, a subordinate, Gen. Daniel Sickles, committed one of the Union army's biggest blunders. Disobeying orders, Sickles moved his troops off high ground along the southern part of Cemetery Ridge and into a field of just-ripening wheat. The position was not linked with other Union defenses and the Confederates, noticing the exposed troops and the break in the Union line, quickly seized the advantage, pouring troops across the field. Meade countered by bringing reinforcements to shore up Sickles' line.

A nearly daylong series of charges and counter-charges ensued. While leading one of those charges to maintain the Union position, Forster was shot in the head. He was initially buried near the remains of Confederate Gen. William Barksdale on a Gettysburg farm. Forster's brother-in-law later retrieved the captain's remains and re-interred them in Centre County's Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery.

The aftermath

While Pugh struggled to stop students from leaving the school to fight in the war, he also considered joining the Army. Pugh wrote in a letter to Johnson, "Prof. Wilson and myself have been helping to raise a military company at Boalsburg. He is elected captain and will go if called upon. I would have gone if I could have left. Walker, Buner, Stoner, and Rich have gone." He added, with uncharacteristic venom, "I would leave my quakerism at home till we could give those traitor scoundrels such a thundering thrashing as no people ever got before."

Instead, Pugh fought the war by wielding a pen to write letters, campaigning endlessly for the Farm School in Harrisburg and enduring batteries of meetings with government officials and bureaucrats to shore up its land-grant status. Pugh, though, had an almost prophetic belief that while the war would be won on battlefields, the peace and the reconstruction that would follow would be won on the campuses of universities like Penn State.

He would not live to see that peace. Months after the battle of Gettysburg, Pugh was injured when he was thrown from a carriage. Those injuries -- as well as the exhaustive schedule he kept -- weakened him considerably and, although only 36 years old, he could not fight off a case of typhus. He died on April 29, 1864.

Less than a year later, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, essentially ending the war. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

A long and painful reconstruction began for both the country and the University.

Hugh McAllister, Pugh's ally in the fight to hold the school together during the University's darkest days, had a personal reconstruction to effect. His two estranged brothers -- Robert and Thompson -- had not spoken since the beginning of the war. An ailing Thompson, who fought for the Confederacy, traveled to New York to visit with a doctor. Hugh brought Robert to visit his brother and the reunion reportedly went well. The brothers, though, would never meet again. Shortly after Thompson returned from the reunion, he died peacefully in his sleep.

Many of the students who went off to war returned to graduate from the Farm School and, along with each successive class of students, helped broaden the college from its purely agricultural roots into a world-class leader in higher education. Just as Lincoln's vision for a united, free country survived his death, so did Pugh's vision for a transformed University. Penn State would play a critical role in educating not just the next generations of farmers, but also the next generations of engineers, poets, physicists and other experts from a wide-spectrum of disciplines and fields.

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Additional written features, and video installments with Penn State faculty and Civil War experts William Blair and Carol Reardon, leading up to and through the battle's sesquicentennial, July 1-3, 2013, are archived at

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Last Updated July 28, 2017